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Humanity for Habitat

If you’re like me, these days you’re crawling with ticks. Every time I spy one plying his trade on a body part, I’m overcome by a tender nostalgia for youthful days when I’d never heard of Lyme disease, and the novelty of being in a parasitical relationship was yet to wear off.  Simply put, ticks just didn’t seem like such a big deal back then. 

Few books recapture that spirit like zoologist Nicola Davies’ brilliant What’s Eating You? Parasites—the Inside Story .  The book, written by one of the deans of children’s nonfiction for budding naturalists who may have just set down the last installment of the Captain Underpants saga, is sure to be a hit with its target audience.  But it also makes a great summer beach read for mom or dad (a number of ocean-borne parasites are discussed in detail).  “You are a habitat,” begins Davies’ no nonsense text, contrasted by Neal Layton’s freewheeling illustrations of grinning fleas and lice, ballcap-wearing hookworms, and a hair mite about to dig in to a dinner plate full of dead skin and sebum with a knife and fork.  As the book progresses, readers are treated to a 10-panelled comic strip of a week in the life of a tick, an explanation of why endoparasites (the ones that live inside us are called that, it turns out) look so weird, and a who’s who of the biggest (blue whale tapeworms), bravest (a copepod that lives between the teeth of great white sharks), most beautiful (the Rafflesia flower) and weirdest (you gotta see it to believe it) parasites.  But Davies and Layton are not all fun and games (although Layton does include a mock board game drawing to explain the two-host tapeworm life cycle); the book includes a serious and sobering discussion of plasmodium, the world’s deadliest creatures, which travel from the mouthparts of mosquitoes, hide inside cells of bitten humans, and cause malaria.      

If mouthparts and sebum aren’t your cup of tea, don’t worry.  Try Davies’ Outside Your Window: A First Book of Nature .  Teamed with illustrator Mark Hearld, Davies here takes a more restrained and poetic approach to nature, describing the sights and sounds of a backyard through the seasons, from dandelions and butterflies to apple picking and seed saving.  Although Outside Your Window was published just last year, no one who experiences its timeless beauty will be surprised if it becomes a standard gift book and remains so 50 years from now.  I doubt that What’s Eating You? will ever occupy those cultural heights, and it seems just as unlikely that Davies’ other collaborations with Neal Layton, such as Deadly: The Truth about the Most Dangerous Creatures on Earth , or Poop: A Natural History of the Unmentionable will show up at many future baby showers, although upon further reflection, those titles may be absolutely appropriate for the occasion.

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